Ill-informed politicians and journalists kicking NHS PR professionals – again

 The Telegraph has an incredibly ill-informed article on ‘NHS ‘spin bill’ soars as crisis grows’. Oh the irony of a journalist falling for a politician’s spin about spin.

What galls is that I know that most of these politicians don’t really believe what they say. They are simply attacking investment in PR because it’s brilliant election campaign fodder to be bashing something that has a dodgy reputation with the public. And ill-informed journalists will lap it up as their limited experience of public relations is being targeted for ‘media relations’.

The reality is that most of this money is being invested on mundane and essential communications activities such as public health campaigns and employee communications to help the NHS achieve essential objectives such as help improve hygiene, improve staff retention and increase productivity. It is being spent on informing patients and their families what services are available where, in order to help prevent them attempting to access the wrong service and putting more strain on limited resources. Such as educating people not to attend overstretched A&E departments when they don’t really need to.

The article actually says some of the money is being spent on “campaigns about obesity, smoking, excessive drinking and teenage pregnancy” without bothering to acknowledge that improving all of these things will save lives and help place less demand on NHS budgets.

Some of the NHS PR budget perhaps is being spent on ‘spin’, if you define ‘spin’ as dealing with questions from ill-informed journalists who’ve fallen for politicians’ spin. And some of it will also no doubt be spent on helping the very politicians quoted in the article when they do campaign visits for photo-calls at hospitals. Are those photo-calls ‘spin’ for politicians? Or are they perhaps just politicians doing their job, just as the PR professionals they are so eager to criticise are doing their own jobs?

And if the PR team isn’t running employee communications, engaging with politicians and keeping patients informed then who is going to do it. Should we stop nurses from nursing in order to do a job they don’t have the skills, qualifications or experience to do? Or should we take highly paid consultants out of the operating theatres to do it?

Politicians attacking public relations spend in the NHS, or any public sector organisation, have a quick win. It’s popular and vote grabbing in the short-term, especially for opposition politicians. But in the long-term it’s ultimately incredibly damaging as should the opposition politician win power then they might be able to quickly cut the communications budget to fulfil a campaign pledge, but will eventually have to reinstate it as without it other costs will actually rocket. An NHS facing an inundation of obese, chain-smoking patients will cost far more than one that educates people to help them stay fit and healthy. An NHS that never communicates with its employees will face a staff retention and recruitment crisis.

But what makes me most furious is this article actually names individual public sector workers. How low can you get? Where do you stop at attacking individuals who work in the public sector? It’s right and fair to have debates about the NHS budget and criticise certain parts of it, but it’s totally unacceptable to bring named individuals into it.

The article is also a great example of sloppy journalism. It states that “NHS England, the health service central authority, is set to spend £6.1 million on public relations and communications staff” immediately followed by “the organisation, which oversees hospitals and GP surgeries, announced plans to stop funding 25 different cancer treatments, because of their cost.” The obvious fact that is missing is what is the cost of the cancer treatments? Why list one without the other? A quick search doesn’t tell you the cost of the 25 drugs, but ironically the first link I found was a Telegraph article stating that the total budget for this year was forecast to be £380m, up from £200m previously. Useful context that was missing from this article. Maybe because it didn’t suit the spin the journalists wanted to put on it. And the ultimate irony? Both articles are by the same two journalists – Laura Donnelly and Gregory Walton.

Disclaimer – everything I write on my blog is my personal view, but in this case I feel it necessary to make it even more explicit that this is not necessarily the view of any organisation I’m a member of, client that I’ve ever worked with in the past or will work with in the future. I’ve also provided PR consultancy and/or training to numerous NHS PR professionals including at some of the organisations mentioned in the article.

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